Jacob at Bethel (1)
Malcolm Horlock, Cardiff, Wales
Genesis 28. 10-22 PART 1
Jacob had set out on a journey of 500 miles from Beersheba in the south of Israel to Haran in Mesopotamia (modern day Turkey, near the Syrian border). He had travelled about 50 miles to Bethel, or Luz as it was then known. The event recorded in Genesis 28. 10-22 would have occurred possibly the second, or more likely the third, night after he had left his home.
It was not a very happy time for Jacob. Night seems to have overtaken him before he arrived at the Canaanite city of Luz. It seems that (it certainly was in the days of the Judges) the entrance into the city wasn’t easy to find – even in broad daylight, Judg. 1. 22-26. Apart from which, the city gates would have now been closed for the night. So, Jacob slept under the stars. Before him stretched a further tiring journey of several weeks. And although the trade route to Mesopotamia was well known, and his mother, who had herself once travelled that very way in the opposite direction, may well have given him directions, the territory ahead was altogether strange and unfamiliar to him. And the place he now ‘came to’ – seemingly by accident – was a bleak and comfortless spot.
Jacob was travelling light for the sake of speed; to escape the wrath of his brother Esau. For, although he had left home on his father’s instruction to obtain a wife for himself in Mesopotamia, the underlying – and real reason – for his journey was his fear of Esau. Much, much later, in chapter 35, God would tell him to return to Bethel and erect an altar there ‘to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother’. God knew the real reason for Jacob’s journey. A combination of circumstances had therefore thrust Jacob out of the nest that he had been feathering for himself!
As far as we know, Jacob carried only oil – essential to stop his skin blistering under the fierce sun – and his staff. He never forgot his poverty and helplessness at this time. When returning home 20 years later, he confessed to God, ‘I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant; for I crossed over this Jordan with my staff, and now I have become two companies’, 32. 10. When, in his later vow, verse 20, he mentioned ‘bread’ and ‘clothing’, he was saying that he would be grateful to have only the bare essentials of life – enough to survive on. Again, Jacob had no armed servants, as Abraham had earlier had his three hundred and eighteen, to protect him from wild beasts or bandits. Nor was he a huntsman like his brother Esau, who was experienced at living off the land by the use of his spear and bow, 25. 27; 27. 3. No, it was not a happy time for Jacob.
And it’s not difficult to imagine some of his feelings at that moment – his sense of apprehension and his loneliness, not to speak of a thousand and one other anxieties. Apart from anything else, Jacob had no way of knowing whether Esau had changed his mind, and decided, rather than wait for his father’s expected death and funeral (which in the event was probably not for another 55 years or so), to follow closely on Jacob’s heel – much as he, Jacob, had followed closely on Esau’s heel at the time of their birth! In chapter 35 Jacob referred to this point in his life as ‘the day of my distress’ – ‘let us arise and go up to Bethel’, he told his family, ‘and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress, (the day, that is, of my trouble, adversity, anguish)’. There is perhaps a suggestion in that word ‘answered’ that at this very time Jacob had been calling out for help to the One he knew as his father’s God.
He placed a stone ‘at’ or ‘by’ his head’, v. 11. It is by no means certain that Jacob put it ‘under’ his head to form a pillow. It is at least possible that he placed it alongside his head for protection and shelter from the wind. All we know for certain is that the stone that Jacob selected was large, and that it was laid near Jacob along the ground – for we read that he later ‘set it up’ as a pillar, v. 18. It seems unlikely to me that Jacob would use a stone large enough to function as a pillar for a pillow.
So there Jacob lay, altogether alone, except for his staff – and God!
The substance of Jacob’s dream is punctuated for us by four phrases each introduced by the word ‘Behold’ – by means of which the Holy Spirit invites us to witness the scene through Jacob’s eyes. His dream must rank as one of the most remarkable dreams any man has ever experienced. Not that dreams were the only way, or even the usual way, that God was pleased to reveal himself in Old Testament days, and no special meaning or supernatural significance is normally to be ascribed to dreams. But there were occasions when God was pleased to speak to men in this way – and this was one.
We need to understand that, although it was in the form of a dream, God really did appear to Jacob. God later told Jacob to make an altar at Bethel ‘to God, who appeared to you when you fled from the face of Esau your brother’, 35. 1. At the very end of his life, Jacob spoke to his son Joseph of the time when, ‘God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan’, 48. 3. But we are jumping the gun a bit.
First, ‘Behold, a ladder’, v. 12. There is some uncertainty about exactly how the word should be translated but it is unlikely that what Jacob saw was a ladder as we know it. Although the Hebrew word occurs only here in the Old Testament, there is a similar word in another ancient language, Akkadian, which means ‘a stairway, staircase, or ramp’. This particular word appears in ancient Assyrian/Babylonian myths and, in these myths, because the gods of heaven did not descend themselves to the underworld, they sent messengers/viziers – who would ascend and descend what was called ‘the stairway of heaven’. We read, for example, ‘Kakka went down the long stairway of heaven . . . Namtar came up the long stairway of heaven’. Genesis 28 is certainly no myth – Assyrian/Babylonian or any other; it was a God-given dream. But these myths possibly shed light on the meaning of the word here.
Which brings us to the second ‘behold’ – ‘Behold, the angels of God’, v. 12, lit. ‘there the angels’ NKJV. Interestingly, Jacob not only saw the angels of God now as he journeyed away from home, but, according to chapter 32, they were there to meet him on his return journey some 20 years later, v. 1.
Obviously the stairway was wide enough for angels to both go up and come down simultaneously. The stairway had particular relevance to Jacob in his present plight and predicament because it was to him a visible symbol of the very real and unbroken intercourse and communication which took place, and still takes place, between heaven and earth – and in particular between God in heaven and His people on earth. Jacob saw multitudes of God’s heavenly servants coming down – presumably to carry out God’s commands and provide assistance and protection for His people – and going up – presumably to report back and obtain fresh instructions and supplies of aid.
To Jacob, the point was that the stairway, with its silent, never-failing ministry, reached right down to where he lay below – poor, helpless and, humanly speaking, utterly alone - and right up to where God was – to the immediate presence of God Himself. The stairway assured Jacob that the God of his fathers, the great God of creation, the God of heaven and earth, the God who commanded and directed a countless throng of mighty angels, was not only interested in such men as his fathers Abraham and Isaac, but was intimately concerned about him! Yes, it was only a dream, but the dream conveyed a marvellous reality to Jacob. He learned that, though his home was now well over 50 miles behind him – and would soon be much, much farther – heaven itself was near! Very, very near!
About 2000 years later, the Lord Jesus made it clear that, for us, He is the ‘stairway’ to heaven and God. With obvious reference to this incident, He said to Nathaniel, ‘Hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’, John 1. 51. In other words, Jesus does not show us the way to the Father; He is the way, John 14. 6. He has spanned the infinite gulf which separated heaven and earth and in His own person provides a way for sinful man to come to a holy God. In Him, God comes down to man; through Him, man ascends to God. The Lord Jesus is the key to access to God and communication with God.
And then, ‘Behold, the Lord’, v. 13. Jacob was no doubt grateful that he had been able to flee from Esau and his wrath. But he had every reason to be even more grateful that he had not been able to flee from the Lord and His watchful and providential care. He may well have feared that his father’s God would abandon him because he was leaving the land of promise. He certainly had every reason to expect at least some words of very stern rebuke for the deception that he had practised on his father. But God had not deserted him and spoke to him only words of blessing and encouragement, showering the lonely sleeper with the most farreaching promises. What a gracious God we have! He assured Jacob not only that He would give him the land of Canaan and numerous descendants (‘seed’), as his father Isaac had wished for him when he had set out, vv. 3-4, but, more important still, God passed on to Him the promise which He had earlier given to both Abraham and Isaac – but which, curiously, Isaac had omitted when blessing Jacob – that in him and his descendants all families of the earth would be blessed – which promise receives its highest fulfilment in the immeasurable blessings which flow toward those of all nations who today put their faith in the saving work of the Lord Jesus on the cross.
Finally, ‘Behold, I am with you’, v. 15. These momentous promises were followed by God’s assurances concerning Jacob’s personal and immediate needs. After all, the fulfilment of the other promises lay way off in the future. The Lord therefore graciously reassured Jacob off His present love and protection, promising him heavenly preservation until he should return in safety to his home again.
Jacob was one of many in scripture who were given the divine assurance, ‘I . . . with you’. His father Isaac had received such a promise, 26. 3, and it would be repeated later to Moses, Exod. 3. 12, Joshua, Josh. 1. 5, Gideon, Judg. 6. 16, and to us today, Matt. 28. 20; Heb. 13. 5. God’s promise, ‘I will not leave you until I have done’ did not mean that, once God had fulfilled His word, He would then abandon Jacob. It rather provided necessary assurance that His promises would indeed be fulfilled; His protecting and preserving presence would work toward their fulfilment.
Jacob was given not only the security of God’s promise of future blessing, but the guarantee of God’s present blessing – of His presence – expressed both positively, ‘I am with you’, and negatively, ‘I will not leave you’. In the Assyrian/Babylonian myths mentioned above, the gods did not come down from heaven themselves. But Jacob was assured that the God of his fathers not only could, but would – and that He, the God of heaven, would be his unfailing companion. Jacob now had, not only the promise of the land, but the promise of the presence of the Giver.
Jacob was almost certainly aware that God had once said to his father, ‘Dwell in this land, and I will be with you’, 26. 3. But Jacob knew that he wasn’t going to be staying in the Promised Land; he would be leaving it far behind. And so to avoid any doubts on Jacob’s part, God gives Jacob a further promise. He undertook to ‘keep’, that is to ‘watch over’, ‘guard’, ‘take care of’ Jacob, ‘wherever’ he went. How much this additional assurance must have meant to Jacob at that moment. How he must have treasured it. What a wonderful, considerate God we have!
To be continued